College & Workforce Readiness

High School Turnaround: A Lively (But Friendly) Argument

By Catherine Gewertz — August 03, 2009 3 min read

Last week, I blogged about a Las Vegas high school that earned honors from the state of Nevada for being a “high achieving exemplary turnaround” school because its test scores have soared. Though its graduation rate is 55 percent, that doesn’t disqualify it from earning honors under the state’s accountability system. I raised a question about the state system’s definitions.

Well, I got an earful from Mike Klonsky, a longtime Chicago education activist whom I’ve interviewed and quoted many times over the years. He argued in a blog post of his own that schools can improve a lot without the wholesale staff housecleaning advocated by so many “turnaround” advocates. He pointed to Valley High as an example. So I guess my post about it hit a nerve.

He scolded me for giving “no credit” to the teachers at Valley High for the hard work they’ve obviously done to help its students read and do math proficiently. “Shame on you,” he said.

“I guess you and I just differ on what ‘turnaround’ means,” Klonsky wrote. “To me it means, if you’re driving south and you should be going north, first you stop the car. Then you turn it in the opposite direction and start heading north as fast as you can.” He noted the big test-score gains and said, “Do you know of any rich kids’ schools or selective enrollment high schools that have made gains like that? ... And to think they did it with a huge influx of immigrant students and a decrease of white kids from 50% to 15% of school population. I say, buy those teachers a beer to cool ‘em off in that hot desert sun.”

In the spirit of friendly debate, I wrote back to Klonsky and pointed out that I had indeed praised the big test-score gains as a significant accomplishment. (I will allow here that perhaps I didn’t trumpet that success enough. So let me pause and say the gains at Valley High are truly impressive, and worthy of praise.)

But I’m still stuck on the part of the story that has to do with a state accountability system honoring a school that graduates only 55 percent of its students. That troubles me. It’s not new news, of course. Many a wonk has pointed out that No Child Left Behind permits states to low-ball their academic goals. So while the test-score gains at Valley are impressive, and obviously signify a lot of hard work and staff devotion to the students, the fact that the school is being honored while losing nearly half its kids is still troubling to me.

So Klonsky weighed back in with this:

“What does the state’s arbitrary definition of a high performing school have to do with anything? Do you think that if the state demanded that 90% of the school’s students graduate on time in order to be ordained “high performing” (with no accounting for kids/parents living conditions, ELL, school resources, etc...), or even threatened the whole staff with firing and replacement with TFAers, Valley’s grad rate would have risen? Do you think the fact that only half their kids graduate on time (higher that the average predominantly Latino high school) results from the whip not being cracked hard enough?

“Huge mega high schools with big low-income/immigrant populations have lower graduation rates. That’s a fact. It’s why, for example, Florida, with many of the largest high schools and ELL concentrations in the nation, has the lowest completion rate. If you want to change the latter, you have to change the former—not just raise the graduation standard a few points.

“That whole way of thinking about accountability is topsy-turvy. Reminds me of NCLB’s dictum that all students will be above average by 2014. My advice (it’s free of course and I don’t expect you to follow): Start from concrete analysis of concrete conditions rather than from definitions. Use your gifts and your column to write more about the real conditions educators are facing in schools like Valley High and credit them directly (not just a passing “impressive test scores” when they accomplish things that their arm-chair critics, and accountability bean counters could only dream of.”

Then he invited me to settle it over a beer. But since he’s in Chicago and I’m in Washington, D.C., we’ll have to wait on that one.

I invite you all to jump in with contributions to our prickly (but very collegial) exchange.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.